Burns-Novick: The Vietnam War

I completed viewing the Burns-Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, yesterday—I bought the complete set on DVD so I could watch at my convenience. I’m enormously impressed with the quality. And I’m delighted that Burns and Novick so often saw the war the same way I did.

About the ninth installment, “A Disrespectful Loyalty,” that was telecast last night: It hurt to watch the way the American public greeted returning GIs. Mobs met soldiers and screamed “baby killer” and “butcher” at them and spat on them. I was among the returning troops and was yelled at and spat upon. As I’ve said before, it sickened my already damaged soul. Seeing it portrayed in all its ugly glory on the screen brought back my pain.

I was in Vietnam almost constantly during the 1970s. I didn’t realize until I saw the documentary how widespread and brutal the opposition to the war was in the U.S. I know that American public opinion finally caused our withdrawal and the cutoff of funds for the South Vietnamese government, but I wasn’t here when it was happening. It took my breath away.

Nor was I aware until I watched the video how dishonest American political leaders were with the American people. I was particularly shocked at Nixon’s outright lying.

I’ll have more to say on the subject. I want to offer my observations on the aptly-titled last episode, “The Weight of Memory,” after it has been telecast. One sentence from the final installment will stay with me because it is intrinsic to my own experience: “Everyone came home from Vietnam alone.”


The Burns-Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, hints at criticism of General William Westmoreland, the head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), the military command for forces operating in Vietnam. Westmoreland pursued a strategy of attrition, believing that if the U.S. killed enough Vietnamese Communists, Hanoi would sue to end the war.

In virtually every battle between the U.S. and North Vietnamese forces, the U.S. won hands down. But all too often, the U.S. couldn’t locate the enemy—he attacked, then disappeared. What Westmoreland never understood, it seems to me, was that the North Vietnamese were following to the hilt Mao Tse Tung’s formula:

Enemy advances, we retreat.

Enemy camps, we harass.

Enemy tires, we attack.

Enemy retreats, we pursue.

On 10 June 1968, Westmoreland was replaced by his deputy, General Creighton Abrams as commander of MACV. Abrams changed the emphasis in the war to concentrate on the hamlet-village level, winning over the population, and engaging the enemy at the small-unit level. The Abrams strategy was working, but the U.S. public by then had become so adverse to the war that the U.S. Congress pushed for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. The end result is that the U.S. and South Vietnam lost the war.

The criticism of Westmoreland I hear most often is that he looked and acted the part of a general but lacked the intelligence to understand the nature of the North Vietnamese approach. The military outcome under his command suggests that the diagnosis is accurate. I can’t say I knew him well enough to judge. I briefed him several times. He was always cordial but asked few questions. I wondered at the time if he was in a hurry to get through the briefing or perhaps didn’t understand what I was telling him or maybe simply didn’t accept it.

1969 in Vietnam

I saw the seventh installment of the Burns-Novick The Vietnam War yesterday. It focuses on 1969. The documentary matches my memories. It was the first full year that General Creighton Abrams commanded MACV, and I watched as he shifted the emphasis in the war to winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese population. I knew the North Vietnamese well from exploiting their communications, and I was sure Abrams was on the right track.

But that year, like so many years, I travelled back and forth between Vietnam and the U.S. and I saw the rising opposition to the war among Americans. When I came through the San Francisco airport with the troops, protestors spat on me and called me “baby killer” and “butcher.” I was sickened to my already damaged soul.

Watching the documentary, I learned all over again of the atrocities committed by both sides during the war. I’m beginning to agree with one of the veterans interviewed that war changes human behavior. It brings out the savagery inherent in us all.

Back to the Cassandra Effect

The last two installments of the Burns-Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, broadcast last Thursday and last night, dealt with 1967 and 1968 in Vietnam. I was there part of both years and was deeply involved the Dak To battle (1967) and the Tết Offensive (1968). The Burns-Novick film suggested broadly that U.S. forces were alerted in both instances before the North Vietnamese attacked. I can verify that. I was instrumental in issuing the warnings, derived from signals intelligence—now declassified.

I wrote some months ago in this blog about the Cassandra Effect, the failure of U.S. commanders to believe or act on warnings from signals intelligence. It happened to me so often that I coined the term. The Cassandra Effect was in full force for both Dak To and Tết. General Westmoreland at MACV and the commanders of both the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Brigade were briefed on the signals intelligence evidence of North Vietnamese plans. They took no action to prepare. The rest is history.

1968: The Tết Offensive

Last night I watched on DVD part six, “Things Fall Apart,” of the Burns-Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, that will be shown on PBS tonight. It centers on the Tết Offensive.

The documentary views the offensive the same way I do, that it was a military defeat but a psychological victory. To my knowledge, the North Vietnamese lost every battle begun during the offensive and suffered enormous casualties. They failed to achieve their goals of sparking a general uprising against the Saigon government, and the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (the military forces of South Vietnam) did not disintegrate under pressure, as the North hoped.

But the North’s forces accomplished something of great value to them: they caused the American public to doubt that the U.S. would ever win the war. That led to greater and greater opposition to the war, the principal factor that finally led to the American defeat in 1975.

The North Vietnamese were determined to win no matter what the cost. As Ho Chi Minh said years before, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”

The American people had no such dedication. Indeed, they wanted the U.S. to withdraw from the war. We pulled back our forces in 1973, ended out air support for the South Vietnamese shortly thereafter, and finally reduced our financial support to the South to such a low level that defeat was inevitable. The Chinese and the Soviet Union, on the other hand, maintained their backing of North Vietnam. The fall of Saigon in 1975 surprised no one but the Americans.

Viet Cong and North Vietnamese

Readers of this blog have asked me why I always refer to the communists in Vietnam as the North Vietnamese and never the Viet Cong (VC).

First of all, “Viet Cong” is short for the Vietnamese Việt Nam Cộng-sản which simply means Vietnamese Communist. The communists themselves never used the term. Americans used Viet Cong or VC to mean the communists native to South Vietnam, independent of the north, as opposed to the North Vietnamese who infiltrated South Vietnam. The Americans who used the term bought into the fiction North Vietnam had created that an independent movement developed in South Vietnam that rebelled against the South Vietnamese government. That movement, according to the fiction, was named the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam), shortened to National Liberation Front or NLF. The front was never a real organization. It was a cover for North Vietnamese operations in South Vietnam.

Second, the entire effort to defeat the South Vietnamese government and the American forces was a North Vietnamese endeavor. Every aspect of it was controlled by Hanoi. There was no independent rebellion in the south. So the American distinction between “North Vietnamese Army” (NVA) and “Viet Cong” (VC) never actually existed. The North Vietnamese army, called the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) by the north, included three categories of forces: regulars, regional forces, and guerrillas. The latter two were what we Americans called Viet Cong, but troops in these categories were neither independent of the north nor native to south Vietnam. All three types of PAVN soldiers included northern, central, and southern natives.

Therefore, the most accurate term for the forces fighting the South Vietnamese and the Americans is the North Vietnamese. That’s who they were, and that’s what I call them.

Should the Draft Be Revived?

That’s a question I regularly get from readers and friends. They ask my views because it was the Selective Service that got me started on my career in Vietnam.

After I graduated from college (University of California, Berkeley) in 1958, I was certain to be drafted unless I acted. So I enlisted in the army to go to the Army Language School (ALS) in Monterey to study Chinese, a language that fascinated me. But then I got to ALS, I learned that I was scheduled to study not Chinese but Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—in those days we called that area of the world French Indochina. I spent the whole of 1959 in intensive study of Vietnamese. When I graduated, I asked the army to send me to Vietnam. They said no, since I had graduated first in my class, I was to be assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA). In 1961, when I completed my army tour, NSA hired me and, in 1962, sent me to Vietnam.

Had there been no draft, I certainly would not have enlisted. That enlistment changed my life.

I look at young people now and perceive that they lack the discipline and self-control that military service instills. Those are qualities I am deeply grateful for. They have served me well during my life. If the draft were still in force, all young men would benefit from the same training I did.

I’m sympathetic to the arguments that say (1) a new draft law should include alternatives to the army, such as the Peace Corps or a similar service internal to the U.S.; and (2) if young men are subject to the draft, young women should be, too. All that said, the self-reliance and value of teamwork I learned in basic training and combat training have been of inestimable value to me. Whatever service might be included in a draft should emphasize training that enhances those qualities.

Mandatory service to the nation is not unheard of in other nations and has proven especially fruitful for Israel, for example. I think we can learn from others.